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Location Options for Portable Churches

The words “portable church” might conjure up images of a traveling evangelist, moving from town to town, holding revival meetings in a tent, when in fact, nothing can be farther from the truth. While the word “portable” is one of the key descriptors, portable churches rarely move from site to site, preferring to find a location that’s central and accessible to the community they serve and set up shop there. Those locations could be anything—a school, a movie theater, a performing arts facility, or a community center. The portability enters into it because everything that’s needed to “do church” is brought in and set up, and then after the service, it’s torn down and packed away until the next week. Everything can include sound, lights, and video equipment, coffee making supplies, toys and other items for kids’ ministries, musical instruments, room dividers, flooring, staging and so on. All this is packed and stored in trailers that are hauled back and forth each week.

Portable churches exist for a number of reasons, and financial considerations usually top the list. Peter van der Harst, founder and CEO of Portable Church Industries in Troy, Mich., notes, “The easy one for everybody is cost. When you figure out dollars-per-seat it’s typically a three-digit number for a portable church, whereas a fixed site church is often a four- or five-digit number. We’ve seen fixed site churches upwards of $20,000 a seat, when they take their construction budget and the number of seats, and hit the divide key on the calculator. I think the most expensive portable church we’ve ever done hit somewhere around $700 a seat.”

Lead Pastor Carey Nieuwhof, Connexus Community Church in Barrie, Ontario, recalls their process, “There are reasons of necessity and reasons of preference, and it was a combination of the two for us. When we started Connexus at the end of 2007 we really didn’t have a choice. We were a brand new church, we couldn’t afford property, and it was a bit of an experiment. So we decided to rent two local cinemas (we started as a multi-campus church in two locations).

“Some of it was necessity, but we also very quickly realized for a lot of our folks, it felt like a very safe place to invite your friends,” Nieuwhof continues. “Safer than a church, safer than even a school, because who wants to go to school on a Sunday? Having a church that is hosted by a movie theater? Everybody likes to go to the movies.”

Location, Location, Location

Like a fixed site facility, the location is important, however, there are other considerations for a portable church, as Mark Lee, lead pastor of VantagePoint Church in Corona, Calif., describes, “A location determines a church's visibility in the community. Sometimes a bigger temporary facility displays the vision of the church to reach more people for Christ. However, finding an available location smack dab in the middle of your target group can be a real challenge.”

Lee continues, “It can also be difficult to find a facility with adequate children's rooms. We are currently in a school where our services are at about 50% capacity. This gives the impression that there is plenty of room for growth, yet we're almost maxed out in terms of the number of classrooms the school will allow us to use. If a portable church rents out a movie theater this problem is even worse. Children need as much clear floor space as possible, and movie theaters usually only have room in the middle aisle and front of the theater.”

And there are logistical considerations, as Kent Bertrand, lead pastor of Bridge Church Arizona in Gilbert, Ariz., details: “Besides making sure you can rent the site for as many hours as you need, the greatest challenge I see is the accessibility. In our school, we are literally able to pull our trailer right up to the door of the room we use for worship. [So] we only move our equipment a few feet. But in other environments, equipment may need to be hauled much farther. The speed with which things can be taken in and out of the worship location is a big factor in how much energy is expended in setup/tear down.”

While efficiently getting your gear in and out of the facility is important, van der Harst notes that logistics within the facility are equally important. “Many school auditoriums are in a fine arts section of the building that does not have significant classrooms for breakouts and children’s spaces,” he says. “Typically, the athletic complex, the fine arts complex and the academic areas are in separate regions of the building. Schools are designed like that for security purposes. When there is a Friday night sports or music event you are not opening up the classrooms and the lockers. But for a portable church that means there’s usually substantial distance between your meeting space and the available children’s spaces.”

And what about the gear? Contemporary houses of worship rely extensively on audio, video and lighting technology to help present the message in a relevant way. Lee says, “A/V/L is one of the first orders of business in a portable church. The space that a portable church uses for worship is either not outfitted for the needs of a church or the existing equipment is off limits to the church. The church needs to create a system that will not only perform sufficiently, but travel as well. It has to be simple enough for volunteers to set up and break down easily. It has to be durable enough to withstand bumps and turns in the trailers. The challenge with designing an A/V/L system is that it has to be tailor-made for the current facility that may or may not be engineered acoustically, but also has to be flexible enough to be used in another venue, if and when the time comes to move facilities.”

Portable, And Multi-Site?

Like Connexus Community Church it is possible to be both. Nieuwhof says, “It’s a little bit more complicated than just doubling your work load or doubling what you think about. You need great leadership development. It forces you to develop leaders faster. It is complex being portable and multi-site.” Jim Tomberlin founder, president and senior strategist for MultiSite Solutions explains why a church would be portable and multi-site, “The overwhelmingly reason why churches go multi-site is to reach people, growth is the by-product. Since the majority of church-going Americans live within a fifteen-minute drive of their church, multi-site is a strategy to reach more people who would not normally attend their church because of where they live.”

Things that are commonplace or taken for granted in a permanent site church can pose significant hurdles or are not practical for a portable church as Bertrand says, “These include not having church space during the week for Bible studies, worship practice, and other activities, not having 24/7 church presence for drive-by awareness and signage, and, most importantly, that several members of your team need to invest a fair amount of time and energy into "moving and shaking" (setting up and tearing down)...time and energy that could be spent invested in other ministries.” Creative thinking and flexibility are key to presenting extra events like Christmas or Easter productions, or even holding baptisms. Nieuwhof adds, “What we’ve done is once or twice a year we’ll go and just do a lake baptism. So in July this year we baptized 24 people on a Sunday night. And then sometimes we’ll rent a place on a Sunday afternoon and do baptisms.”

Finished, But Not Done

Once the service is finished and most of the congregation is making their way home or to the local restaurants, the portable church volunteers are still hard at work, taking down, putting away, packing up, and hauling back. And while the time demands for portable church might be greater for volunteers on a weekly basis, it’s not without benefits as Lee points out, “Every Sunday morning, every area of ministry must be set up and then broken down, put in a trailer and stored until the next week. Our trailer people pick up at 5:30am. We start setting up at 6:30am. After 2 services, trailers aren't out until 1:30pm. The simple truth is that we NEED volunteers. If volunteers don't show up, we don't have church. It sounds like a huge burden, but in actuality it's such an enormous blessing. It forces us to get more people involved. When people are involved, they give more. When people own the vision of the ministry, they're more apt to invite people. If serving others is to be more like Christ, then our volunteer demands force us to be more like Christ. Now that's not such a bad thing, is it?”

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Excellent article. My church is currently renting space in a performing arts theater, and you hit some of our issues right on the head.

Related Images

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(Courtesy VantagePoint Church)

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Children’s area at The Met, Houston, TX (Courtesy MultiSite Solutions)

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Highlands Community Church, Renton, WA. School classroom. (Courtesy MultiSite Solutions)

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Highlands Community Church, Renton, WA. Children’s area. (Courtesy MultiSite Solutions)

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(Image Courtesy VantagePoint Church)